Taking the concept of series fiction to its purist extremes, Terry Goodkind begins Stone of Tears at literally the very minute Wizard's First Rule ends. At a back-breaking 979 paperback pages (703 in hardcover), this tome is even weightier than its predecessor. And admittedly, I was very wary at first that this novel was going to turn into a disappointing rehash of that book, right down to its flaws (here again, it takes about 200-300 pages before Goodkind really kicks his story into gear). But Goodkind skirts the self-plagiarism trap and turns Stone of Tears into a compelling expansion of his first story, full of neat twists on some familiar concepts, and driven by an impressively focused narrative — quite a feat there, given the length — propelled by splendid attention to both character and thematic depth. Goodkind has also improved to the point where he is less inclined towards moments of easy emotional button-pushing, instead investing his saga with scenes of honest visceral force...even if he sometimes goes overboard.
Yes, there are certainly rough areas that deserve to be mentioned, but at this juncture the Sword of Truth series has established itself as a solidly engrossing epic adventure. Like Goodkind's characters, by the time you finish this mammoth tome you feel rode hard and hung up wet, but the ordeal is as satisfying as it is exhausting. Again, readers who do not like their fantasies harsh and brutal are advised to stay as far away as they can get.
Darken Rahl has been vanquished by the Seeker of Truth, Richard Cypher, and now the People's Palace of D'Hara is a brighter and friendlier place. But of course, now a new and even more fearsome threat looms. A rip in the veil between this world and the sinister Underworld is bringing forth minions of the Keeper of the Underworld, who had been running Darken Rahl's whole show from behind the scenes all along. And the Keeper has vengeful designs upon Richard, hinting that our horribly battered hero has some whupass in store even more dreadful and severe than his ordeals in Book One, if such a thing can be imagined.
Having returned with his beloved Kahlan to visit the Mud People in the southern Midlands, Richard is confronted by three Sisters of the Light, an ancient society of women who take it upon themselves to train incipient wizards, making sure they know how to control their gift and use it in the service of the Creator, and not the evil Keeper. The Sisters inform Richard that he is so gifted, and if he doesn't come with them to the Palace of the Prophets in far-off Tanimura, his latent and unrestrained magical abilities will surely kill him. Trouble is, the memory of his enslavement to Mistress Danna makes Richard incapable of donning the collar he will be required to wear while undergoing his training. However, Kahlan knows that if Richard doesn't learn to control his magic and dies as a result, nothing will stand in the Keeper's way. So she forces him to go in the only way she knows how, by making him believe she has spurned his love. Nobody ever accused Goodkind of going easy on either his characters or his readers.
With Richard on his way, Kahlan heads north to the Midland capital of Aydindril to consult with the wizard Zedd. But on her way, she and her three Mud People guides come upon the ruins of Ebinissia (whose queen was Kahlan's half-sister), a city which has been so thoroughly demolished by a very recent invasion that hardly a footstool remains unsmashed or a stray cat left alive. This is perhaps the section of the book where Goodkind comes the closest to some of the unsubtle emotional manipulation he engaged in in the first volume. We are invited to share in Kahlan's horror at the fact the city's entire female population has been savagely raped, and we are immediately swept up in her immediate desire for revenge upon whichever army is responsible for this.
It turns out the culprits are an army of the Imperial Order, hailing from the Old World far to the east, and who were allied with Darken Rahl and the D'Harans. Now they are on their own, and obsessed with ridding the entire world of magic. Unable to see how they are being manipulated by the Keeper, they believe they are fighting against him. Kahlan's party catches up with a small army from nearby Galea, composed largely of teenage boys, who vainly hope to avenge Ebinissia. In her capacity as Mother Confessor, Kahlan (in a sequence that could easily have been absurd, but which instead Goodkind pulls off with brass balls) takes command of this ragtag bunch of wide-eyed kids and turns them into a fighting force that can actually do some damage as opposed to throwing their lives away pointlessly. Goodkind his decidedly unromantic notions of warfare, and Kahlan's methods of dealing with these naive young recruits shows a great deal of brutal honesty you don't often get in heroic hack-n-slash fantasy. A subsequent scene in which Kahlan and several warriors disguise themselves as ghosts and ride naked into battle in an effort to terrify the superstitious Imperial soldiers is possibly the most audacious set-piece in all of recent fantasy.
Meanwhile, Richard makes his way to Tanimura, where he stands to learn a thing or two about his own powers, about ancient prophecies, and about just how much headway the Keeper has made in the world of the living already.
Although I'll be the first to acknowledge that Goodkind isn't turning in Great Literature here, he most definitely is producing swell escapism. Fantasy fiction is at its best when it delivers a thrilling story full of action, wonder, and characters you can grab onto. Stone of Tears does just that and is generally unpretentious (except for its outrageous length) into the bargain. Goodkind immerses you in his world with admirable conviction. In fact, with this series, you begin to get the idea that the whole reason VLFN's are so VL to begin with is that this is a genre that is as much about reader-immersion into otherworlds as it is about basic storytelling. I take the view that Robert Jordan puts most of his effort only into the first of those principles, whereas Goodkind devotes equal attention to both. Once you are through with this story, you really do feel as though you have been someplace else, and that alone earns Goodkind high marks.
Other bits of creative ingenuity, such as the way Goodkind uses a backstory about an ancient war of mages as a metaphor for the nuclear arms race, are just a bonus. Sure, he fumbles. With a book this size it would be unrealistic not to. On top of the scenes I mentioned a few paragraphs back, towards the finale Goodkind starts tying up his loose ends a bit too neatly, with a few scenes of pure "author's convenience" thrown in to make sure all is as tidy as can be. Yet overall, these flubs are not enough to mar the work as a whole. I don't know that I would like to see too many writers doing what Goodkind is doing with The Sword of Truth (and I fear too many are trying already). There is such a thing as sensory overload, not to mention the fact that these kinds of novels are harder to make work than you might think. But if someone has to do it, it might as well be someone with the intensity of Terry Goodkind.